Ensuring a circular economy roadmap for technology metals

The Met4Tech project brings together leading UK academics in research that will enable a more circular economy to power the green energy transition.

Met4Tech brings together leading researchers to expand opportunities around the supply of metallurgical technologies from primary and secondary sources, and management of lead materials. The organization is creating a National Technology Metals Circular Economy Roadmap to accelerate the UK’s move towards a circular economy.

In order to achieve a net zero carbon economy, many countries have increased the production of electric vehicles (EVs), as one of the main policy measures that will contribute to clean energy. In order to power EVs, a supply of essential metals, such as rare earth elements (REEs), are used in motor magnets and powertrains, and metals such as cobalt and lithium are needed to make EV batteries. These metals and many others are also used in the batteries inside smartphones, laptops, and consumer products, meaning they are an essential part of our daily lives. Because of this, a sustainable circular supply chain for metal technology will need to be established to ensure that supply levels can meet the expected demand for EV battery production rates, as well as other critical applications.

To meet this need, the UK’s Critical Mineral Strategy was announced earlier this year. Through this strategy, the UK will work with international partners to accelerate the growth of our domestic supply of essential minerals.

Here, in conversation with Stage Oneseveral developers of Met4Tech – Carol Pettit, Frances Wall, Evi Petavratzi, Aleksandra Čavoški, and Robert Lee – emphasized the goals of the project and how they fit with the UK Government’s plans to improve the supply of our precious metals.

What is the current state of metallurgical technology in the UK? What needs to change?

Like many other industrialized countries, the UK not only wishes to achieve its climate change goals for 2050, but also to participate in the development of low-carbon vehicles and renewable energy technologies. In order for the UK to take advantage of the £2.7bn opportunity to supply battery equipment and add 60,000 jobs in battery and car manufacturing, it needs to have safe and reliable metallurgy technology. The cost and volume of this metal flow technology is as high as industrial metals; however, their performance is desirable and important in delivering high-tech applications. Without metals such as REEs, cobalt, tungsten, tin, and lithium, high-value activities are impossible.

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This also applies to almost all new digital and clean technologies, as technological metals are today’s key element in the green economy and energy transition. Many metallurgical metals are listed as ‘critical’ in the UK, meaning they are at risk of supply disruptions. They also often have low recycling rates and poorly understood flows despite rapidly growing demand.

What is Met4Tech and how does it work to accelerate the local supply chain for steel technology within the UK?

The UK’s new Circular Economy Center for Metals Technology (Met4Tech) will help the country maximize the opportunity by sourcing technology metals from secondary and primary and lead materials stewardship, keeping these metals in high value. Met4Tech brings together leading UK academics, and many partners from across the value chain, to participate in interdisciplinary research and policy interventions. The overall goal is to create a roadmap for the tech metals circular economy (CE) process that includes all key players, agency-based models, strategic business models, technology forecasts, design options, operational innovations, regulatory requirements, and community preferences. .

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What does 2022 look like for Met4Tech? What are some of the best projects you’ve been involved in?

The first main objective of the Met4Tech project is the UK Technology Metals Observatory, hosted by the British Geological Survey (BGS), which describes stocks, flows, and current practices – including a state-of-the-art CE system for metal technology – as well as laying the foundation for monitoring and tracking the increase in CE-based revaluation.

There is a new detailed study that shows how the principles of CE use geo-novel models. These models analyze granite-related (lithium, tin, tungsten) and associated mine waste in Cornwall, involving collaboration with mining companies and local government partners. Research teams have built on previous Faraday Battery Challenge and Driving the Electric Revolution (grenDER) projects in the UK to launch new collaborations and Met4Tech technology courses.

Efficient metal recycling technologies include alternative scrapping and pyrometallurgy/hydrometallurgy methods. Bringing together partners with different waste streams and processing technologies leads to new recovery techniques and circular paths. Also of great interest are our cross-cutting topics, which include:

  • Social science and responsible innovation;
  • Management and control;
  • Environmental and life cycle assessment; and
  • Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues in metallurgical technology supply and value chains.

The UK’s first Critical Minerals Strategy was announced earlier this year. Why is this so important and how will it impact your career direction / how does it fit into your current career?

The UK’s new Critical Minerals Strategy outlines three key actions that align well with Met4Tech’s research objectives. The first step is to accelerate the growth of local UK skills, which is demonstrated by our technical research and management in the Cornwall case study, and the full value system in our CE metal technology approach.

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The second action is cooperation with international partners, which is already happening within the Met4Tech CE Center, and our plan is to develop international cooperation links.

The third action is to improve international markets to make them more accountable, transparent, and responsible, and research from our ongoing Met4Tech studies and research on innovation will help inform ongoing updates to the Minerals Strategy. The creation and funding of a Center of Expertise in Minerals at BGS will be able to build directly on the practical research carried out by Met4Tech.

How important is international cooperation to speeding up the UK minerals supply chain?

The determination of ‘critical’ minerals in the UK, and in other countries, depends on the national context and considers the economic value and security of supply of these minerals in a number of strategic systems. The global context of the production and supply chain is important, and international cooperation will be essential to ensure the UK’s access to essential minerals and technology metals.

The overall aim of Met4Tech is to map the way to a UK circular metal economy in an international context. The Met4Tech project is mainly national and there are also strong links with international groups. Researchers look closely at the study of local conditions, and hold international affairs roundtables to discuss recent developments around the world. We are also looking to create international collaborations with many groups and institutions.

Carol Pettit and Frances Wall
Camborne School of Mines
At the University of Exeter

Evi Petavratzi
British Geological Survey

Aleksandra Čavoški and Robert Lee
Birmingham Law School
At the University of Birmingham

Please note, this article will appear in our twelfth edition quarterly publication.

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